Adelina Patti, 1843-1919, was one of the great phenomena of the Nineteenth century. Her career as an opera singer was a succession of triumphs from her debut in 1859 until the early 1900’s, when she “retired” into an endless series of farewell tours. In addition to her musical accomplishments, Patti possessed a true star quality that made her a household name even to those unable to attend her performances.
Her fame also made her quite possibly the most photographed woman of the Victorian era. Dozens of portraits abound, typically as paper photos mounted on cardboard. Yet not long ago I came across this fairly unusual one dating from the 1880's, painted over a full-plate tintype.
|Painted tintype of Adelina Patti, after Mora. |
As usual, click any picture to enlarge.
Tintypes, sometimes called ferrotypes, were photographs on tin plates that were very common in the 19th century. As much as we might admire them today, they were originally an inexpensive form of photography suited to itinerant photographers and outdoor venues. Perhaps the quintessential tintype is one that depicts beach-side vacationers in their Victorian bathing suits.
Some people as an economical alternative to regular oil portraits had full-plate tintypes (about six by eight inches) taken, then colored or painted over to simulate an original painting. However, a star of Patti’s stature would have been above this form of photography, and in fact tintypes of celebrities are rare almost to the point of non-existence.
The original of this portrait is instantly recognizable. It was taken in 1882 by the American celebrity photographer Mora, and with others from the same session is often seen in cabinet format (about four by six inches) . Although there were dozens of Patti portraits to choose from, the Mora photograph seemed to represent an ideal of the period, and was seen in many guises.
|A slightly different angle.|
|3/4 length, and hand tinted.|
In addition to being copied in tin in the present case, this photo was also pressed into service for advertising, among other things, Chicago Corsets and Pears’ soap.
|Celebrity endorsements are nothing new.|
|One wonders if Patti were paid or even consulted on these ads.|
I also have a stereoview of the Mora portrait encased in skeleton leaves. These leaves were a favorite Victorian craft, and arrangements were encased under glass domes or preserved in photographs. Often, portraits encircled by wreaths of skeleton leaves are erroneously assumed to be memorial pictures. Since Patti lived until 1919, the wreath in this 19th century photo was only meant to provide an attractive setting.
It is easy to imagine some early fan of Patti’s, entranced by her fame, beauty and personality, creating this unusual tribute. The Mora photograph was first copied as a tintype. Perhaps some experimenting was required to produce the large tintype; when I bought this it was accompanied by a rather poor-quality, small-sized tintype of the same photo.
The artist who colored this photo was a very good one. The skin tones are perfect, every eyelet and detail of lace painstakingly depicted, and the background is beautifully stippled, resembling enamel. The dress was enlivened with bright red, and the highlights in the hair wonderfully enhanced. Age has crazed the painted surface, and although the paint is solidly adhering, and not yet separating or flaking, this will have to be monitored in the future.
In addition to photographs, Patti’s image was also recorded by professional artists. The painter Franz Winterhalter famously painted her twice; the beautiful picture below is at Harewood House in Yorkshire, England. The almost folk-art charm of the painted tintype becomes very apparent when compared to the elegant Winterhalter portrait.
|Formal portrait by Winterhalter, via Harewood House website.|
I love to imagine the Patti tintype in its original setting, on the wall of some Victorian parlor. Portraits of this period were often mounted in deeply-molded walnut frames, and one can clearly see the shadow of an oval mat. I will be on the lookout for an appropriate frame, but in the meantime through the magic of photo-editing I have restored the tintype to a surmise of its original appearance.
Adelina Patti was one of the greatest artists and celebrities of the Nineteenth century. Through her career, portraits, advertising and recordings she left her mark on both the serious musical history and on the popular culture of her day. Her admirers were legion, and one of them went to substantial trouble to commission this unusual souvenir in tin and pigment.